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Personal Reflections after My Recent Heart Attack

May 4th, 2014

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Two and a half weeks ago I experienced a heart attack. It was unforeseen by the doctors because I had kept my weight and cholesterol down, had regular exercise, and had no history of heart problems in my family. Plus, thanks mostly to my wife, we have a very healthy diet – not too many fatty or unhealthy foods. So these precautions saved my life, otherwise I might not have survived. (And thanks to Heidi and Eric Hasse for taking me to the hospital.)

I am still rehabilitating at home but feeling better each day, taking things slowly. And will be taking several types of medicine the rest of my life – blood thinners, beta-blockers, etc. The doctors expect me to make a full recovery, and we give praise to God for His watchcare over me in this situation, and also are grateful for the excellent medical care we received in Germany.

But this time at home has allowed me the opportunity to pray and read and think about my calling and my life. I have to admit that I have been through a wide range of emotions – denial, shock, surprise, sadness. I have not hit the highs or lows but have stayed solidly in the middle of the emotional swings. But it does make you think, ponder, and wonder. There has been both the urge to flee and the desire to stay put, mostly to be near reliable medical care. But it has also brought me closer to God, caused me to question how well I have been handling the stress in my life, to ask myself if I am doing the right things and the most important things, and, well, I could go on.

It has made me very grateful for my wife and my children – as well as my children-in-law and grandchildren, and our extended family. And for the many friends we have made over the years. Especially Christian friends for we realize that what we share in Christ is of eternal significance. And I am very grateful for the journey we have had in Christian ministry. I will not share it all with you, except to say that you are likely a part of our journey, and we have appreciated getting to know you, and look forward to knowing you better.

Paul is the one we who are in Christian ministry go to in the New Testament to examine ourselves. Christ is our perfect standard for living the Christian life and for serving in the power of the Spirit, but Paul, as an imperfect, flawed human being, but one who was called by God and served for many years, is still someone we turn to to study, compare our experiences with, and learn from him. He said that we should do as much when, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me – put it into practice” (Phil. 4:9).

The passage above was written relatively early in Paul’s public ministry. He wrote often of his own calling and experiences, but here seemed to be the first time he spoke autobiographical, and if not the first, then among the earliest of his writings. And it is the most complete statement of a theology of calling and responsibility. Here is how I understand this passage and what it means to me personally.

A call to serve, and more than serve as an action – a call to serve as a servant

The first requirement of following Christ in life or in ministry is to deny oneself and take up the cross of self-death and self-choice and follow Him. This is true for anyone who would be a Christian, but it also is the nature of the life of those He calls to serve Him in Christian ministry. It would seem strange for Paul to have written, “Think of yourselves as servants of Christ and of us as your lords and masters.” He says, rather, that they are also servants, and even more so. We serve not merely as an activity to engage in, but as our identity and nature. We are called to be servants. It is not a role we put on on Sunday and take off on Monday, but we are to be this every day.

Who is the “We” here? In the greater context of 1 Corinthians Paul was referring to himself and Sosthenes, who was mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1:1, and was described as the synagogue ruler in Corinth in Acts 18:17. Those at Corinth had seen first hand the public beating that Sosthenes had received for welcoming the Christian teaching in the synagogue. Paul, however, also extends this concept of “servant” to Apollos and to all those who had been true apostles of Christ and had served in any way to help strengthen the churches, and all of them had faced hardship of one kind or another.

This has caused me to stop and think about what sacrifices I have personally made for Christ – have I ever faced serious opposition to my message, to my witness, to my service? We are slow to talk about such things because (a) it may appear as though we are self-centered, focused on ourselves, and boastful of our hardships and (b) there are others who had faced more hardships than we had, and (c) servants are not to complain about their conditions anyway. But I have learned that people often misunderstand ministry – they are quick to note the privileges and slow to recognize the hardship. Anyone who serves in church does so in faith, not knowing what support he will receive but stepping out in faith to follow the will of God.

Lana and I married like this – broke, small pay checks, fresh out of school, starting out in faith, motivated by a sense of calling and out of our love for Christ. After serving in youth work for several years, while we were still young, and still broke, we went as missionaries to the Philippines, and served there for eight years. During our time there we lived in Tagum, Davao del Norte, at first, and worked in the language of Cebuano. I served throughout the province of North Davao and it was the hottest spot in the Philippines in those years for the communist rebel insurgency. We worked both sides of the province, regularly visiting churches in areas dominated by communist guerrillas. Tagum was geographically the size of our current town of Schoenaich, Germany, and during our time there there were about 12 bombs that were set off in that town by either communist insurgents or Muslim separatists.

And the area was also rife with diseases. I had amoebic dysentery more times than I can count and lost so much weight that I weighed only about 140-145 pounds often during during those years, and also had Tuberculosis. Two missionaries who served in neighboring provinces had had their lives placed in danger. One was shot up badly in an ambush, and another had to leave the country because his name was discovered by the military on a hit list of the communist guerrillas. Our area was considered more dangerous than theirs, but all danger is relative. A pastor in my area was martyred by communist guerrillas because he refused their demand for him to stop coming into an area to preach. He said, “These are my people and I am their pastor. I must come.” After they warned him twice, they killed him in cold blood.

In spite of those difficulties, Lana gave birth to two of our three children there, and looking back we consider it one of the best times of our lives. God blessed our ministry. We developed many close friends with missionaries and Filipinos, and we saw the Holy Spirit move throughout the region. I still carry in my heart the memory of the sacrificial service of many Philippine pastors and wives whom we served with, who served in poverty but with great love for Christ and dedication to the work. Many of them died early, working themselves into an early grave, so I can say that our sacrifices are as nothing compared to theirs.

Serving the church or serving Christ? There is a comfort for sincere believers in Paul’s description of himself. He was a servant of Christ first and last. He served the church because Christ had told him to and he loved the church because Christ loved the church. Service for Christ must have a practical application – it cannot be merely rhetoric or theoretical. It must be expressed by serving the ones Christ came to serve – which would be His followers. At the end of the day we must each say, “we are unworthy servants and have only done our duty” (Luke 17:10), however that duty is spelled out.

Stewards of the mysteries of God

The second description Paul makes of himself and his fellow servants is that they are stewards of God’s truth. Stewards were those who presided over the affairs of a family and made provisions for it, even though they themselves did not own the resources they used. They merely administered them. Paul is clearly speaking mostly of apostles in this passage, but not exclusively so, and not in a sense that it does not apply to others. If the apostles were stewards of God’s revealed will, then all pastors-teachers, all missionaries and evangelists, and even every single believer is even more so. We have been entrusted with a body of literature called the Bible, wherein the will and mind of God is revealed to mankind and we must be found faithful to it. Faithful not only to believe it but to teach it, to live it, to promote it, to share and propagate it.

Over twenty centuries of Christianity many funny things have changed in churches. In history many church leaders abused power and there have been many movements to correct that so that it does not happen again, but sometimes these corrections were mere over-corrections that caused a different set of problems. There must be a balance between leaders leading and being held accountable at the same time. But the position described by Paul – stewards of the mysteries of God – carries with it a certain amount of authority. Good preaching carries the biblical authority and should have its affect on everything the church does.

This truth is the counter-truth to the servant nature of ministry, and there are two ways this truth should be applied.

First, let me speak to myself as a pastor, and to all my fellow pastors as well, that we must be faithful to the Word of God. And we must make ourselves accountable to the church as we do so. It was a mark of Paul’s ministry in Berea that this was done, that the people checked to see if what he taught was indeed biblical (Acts 17:11), and it should be this way everywhere. The anointing of the Spirit is given to the people of God to understand the truth (1 John 2:26-27). The true servant of God must through his teaching appeal to the work of the Spirit in the hearts of the believers and work in accordance with the inner working of the Spirit. Pastors need accountability.

Second, however, let me address the problem that exists in many churches, namely the demoting of the role and work of the pastor, to make him a mere a hired hand who must answer strictly to men (or women) in the church, who are neither called, anointed, nor qualified for church leadership. Somehow, someway, people think this is a good idea. As I mentioned already, leadership in the church must make themselves accountable, but it cannot be that the pastor is demoted to being nothing more than a hired hand. It is like making the shepherd subject to the will of the meanest and most aggressive ram in the flock – and nothing good can come of this, only chaos.

And this is clearly not biblical. God called and enabled and sent pastors to care for and lead His churches. All of the passages in the New Testament about leadership describe the pastor of the church as also its elder and its overseer (Acts 20:27-28; 1 Peter 5:1-4, see also 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 2 Tim. 4:1-5; Tit 1:5-9). But neither is this wise, to take the one God-called and God-sent and trained and experienced and make his thoughts on matters the least important in the church. If the role of pastor is to be the mere errand boy for untrained, uncalled, proud, controlling, self-important people in the church, then seminary is a complete waste of time. Six weeks of some boot camp of saying, “Yes, sir!” and then rushing off to do the bidding of another would be more than sufficient.

I am grateful that our church in Stuttgart understands this principle and organizes itself according to biblical teachings. I value and appreciate the wisdom and advice of the deacons, and am open to hear any suggestions from the church body. I am commanded not to lord it over the church, but to be humble and open and sensitive to the advice and thoughts of others. All wisdom and knowledge does not begin and end with me – and this means the practical matters in caring for the church. I need the advice of others, and spiritually I need those who will hold me spiritually accountable also, just like you. But I am commanded also to care for the flock of God and that means leadership.

Alas, some churches have done otherwise and removed the pastor from any ability to lead – perhaps they are merely reacting to a pastor who abused his position. They have instead somehow assembled a selection of people elected from partisan support in the church to tell the pastor what to do. The pastor can teach and visit and drink tea and coffee and have cake with people, but he should not, in their opinion, make any plans or lead the church to apply the very scripture he teaches. Think what this does to his teaching, it practically removes from the pulpit any passage that addresses the people of God as a whole – and most of the scripture does that. What can a man teach if when he is finished he cannot say with any real authority and power, “This is what God says to us that we should be and we should do, now let’s do it!” He is reduced to someone who either makes theological statements that are far removed from daily life, or he delivers merely devotional thoughts that make people feel warm.

But in the Bible the pastor is the vicar of Christ – the vicarious representative of Christ, and not a hired hand that must be told what to do. He is the undershepherd, accountable to the Chief Shepherd, and must have real, not imaginary, leadership. He must speak for God and act for God. His supreme boss is God and his accountability is to God, not to people. Now, he should hold this authority graciously, humbly, and speak in love, gently, respectfully, but he must speak the truth.

Now those who would take away from the pastor the ability to shepherd the flock of God, they will give an answer to God also for their actions. Responsibility for God always brings accountability to God. This leads us to the next point for consideration.

“It is the Lord who judges me”

Another trait of biblical ministry is the strong inner sense in the servant’s life that he must give an account to God for his life. To serve with any other motivation will inevitably lead to error. The minister himself cannot be the main consideration. He serves not for himself nor of himself. He is, as a person, no more significant or important than any other person. Christ is the object of the church’s affection, not the pastor. As a fellow believer he has as much right and need as anyone else in the church to be loved, respected, and appreciated. To paraphrase Paul, those who serve well in the church in any capacity, will be loved and appreciated (1 Tim. 3:13). But his life must be hidden in Christ, hidden behind the cross, hidden beneath the altar of God.

My heart attack has caused me to think and question how well I have hidden behind the cross. Perhaps I have been too visible, have too often stepped in front of the cross and blocked out Christ for the people. The supreme issue is that Christ must be my life, and if He is my life, then I am nothing and He is everything.

Paul did not in this passage mean to say that he had no appreciation for the thoughts of his fellow man. He did not mean to suggest that he was above the advice of others, nor that he was out to make enemies of others. He simply said that the supreme concern of his life was to honor Christ, to obey Christ, and to please Christ. So in that sense, he could not have cared less what others thought of him or what they said of him. This was not a statement of defense. Paul was not deflecting the thoughts of others. It was a not a saying like we make as children, “Sticks and stone can break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Words do often hurt us. Paul did not say that it was nothing to be unkindly criticized, but rather that it was a “small thing,” relatively insignificant when compared to the fact that he must give an answer to God. His commitment was to Christ.

He also said that he does not even judge himself. When we judge ourselves we may be either too hard on ourselves or too easy – normally we are somewhat both. Later he wrote that we ought to examine ourselves before we take the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:28), so this was not a statement that meant to discourage self-examination. His conscience was clear, he wrote. That is, as best he could remember, he had been faithful and true to the word of God. But he ultimately realized that even our own consciences may fail us. We may justify ourselves before our own eyes, or feel good about things while here on earth, that we would feel very differently about were we standing before Christ. Our own righteous acts are like filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6).

As I look back over my life, I have few regrets. I do have a few, but, thank God, only a few. I can say, as Paul did, in my conscience, I have been faithful to teach the Bible because I believe it to be the Word of God. I have sought to teach and preach and present the Jesus of the Bible, not the “Jesus” of public imagination. I believe our salvation and our spiritual life is found in the Jesus of history, the real Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish Messiah, and not the “Jesus” created by popular conceptions or scholarly theories. I have been helped along in this pursuit through the good biblical education and personal and professional mentoring I received early in my life. I did so because the Holy Spirit impressed on me this importance, and because key people in my life also encouraged me to do so. And as I have done so I have seen people grow in their faith in the Lord. God has always blessed my ministry with growth, and I believe it is because of His Word. His word will accomplish its purpose (Isaiah 55:10-11).

After a heart attack

Having survived this one, I realize that my days on this earth are numbered. They were already, as are yours, and the day will come for us all before long that we must leave this place called earth. But it is okay. It is not our home. The grace of God in Christ and His resurrection from the dead has taken the sting out of death. Life is Christ and death is gain, or death is more Christ!

We talk about finishing our race, usually thinking of what Paul wrote in 2 Tim 4: 6-8: “…the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Beautiful and profound words. But Paul was not quite ready to die. He continued in that letter to say, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim 4:18). And in Philippians 3:14 he wrote about the “upward call of God,” so in a sense – in a very real and practical sense – we do not really end our race here. We merely move it to another venue. Oh, there we serve and race with full understanding, with bodies that do not tire and give out, and in the unhindered presence of Christ.

I am not wise enough to understand why I had a heart attack. Perhaps it is because I have not learned well enough how to walk daily in the fullness of the Spirit. Perhaps I have internalized too many issues, tried to do things in my own strength instead of in God’s. Perhaps I have lacked faith. Perhaps God is disciplining me so that I will be less worldly and more spiritual. Perhaps I just have a bad heart. I am sure I have let some pressure get to me in some way, but how much I really don’t know. I suppose we will find out in heaven. I am sure there is plenty of room for improvement in my spiritual life. I want more of Christ and I want Him to have more of me.

I was touched as I read these words from Charles Haddon Spurgeon:

If by excessive labour, we die before reaching the average age of man, worn out in the Master’s service, then glory be to God, we shall have so much less of earth and so much more of Heaven! It is our duty and our privilege to exhaust our lives for Jesus. We are not to be living specimens of men in fine preservation, but living sacrifices, whose lot is to be consumed. (Quoted by John Piper in his book Charles Spurgeon: Preaching Through Adversity)

So in another sense I do not need to apologize for my condition. I had not neglected my health previously, and if it is due to overwork, then so be it. I am glad in the service of Christ.

But the benefit to me of this event is that it has led me to want to be closer to Christ. To know Him more fully, to walk with Him more devotedly, and to serve Him in His power and not my own. Life will end soon and whether I live another 30 years (I’m 63), or am called home this afternoon, life here on earth is brief. What is important is that we let Him prepare us for eternity. And that we focus on pleasing Him and not pleasing people. Regardless what people think of us, to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” coming from Christ will be much more important.

If you read this far, thank you for putting my with my rambling. May God bless you.

After My Heart Attack